Steelers’ Mike Tomlin teaches faith along with football Coaches were ‘the guys that told me right from wrong’ as he grew up without his father

Millions of fans see the cross hanging from Mike Tomlin’s neck on Sundays as he commands the sidelines for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But when he steps in front of the microphones, the questions are never about faith — they’re always football.

What does that cross mean to Tomlin? What guides the man behind the mirrored sunglasses and guarded coachspeak?

Ahead of his 13th season as the Steelers’ head coach, I spoke with Tomlin about his spiritual life and then followed him to the annual Christian men’s conference ManUp, which supports young people in the Pittsburgh area whose fathers aren’t involved in their lives.

Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin speaks to a group of men during a ManUp conference breakout session. Tomlin’s coaching method involves encouraging his players to grow personally and spiritually.

Justin Merriman The Undefeated

Football is full of overt appeals to God: Touchdown Jesus, postgame prayer circles, players in the end zone pointing to the heavens. After winning the Super Bowl in 2018, Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson credited “my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Tomlin’s mentor, Tony Dungy, has an open Bible in his commemorative locker at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

None of that is Tomlin’s style. During our interview, and listening to him speak at ManUp, he rarely used the words “God” or “Christ.” He declined to discuss his churchgoing activities. Instead, Tomlin emphasized pragmatic virtues and actions that are needed on the playing field of life.

“We’ve got to find artful ways to instill that moral fiber and that decision-making we’re all talking about,” Tomlin said during a session at ManUp entitled “Coaching to Transform Lives.”

Tomlin’s high school coach burned life lessons into young Mike’s memory as the team sweated through leg lifts in practice. “Maybe your style and delivery is different,” Tomlin said, “but you better find a way to consistently deliver messaging that’s going to push them to be better people. And you got an awesome vehicle in which to do it through your coaching.”

Mike Tomlin (left) is joined onstage by pastor Tunch Ilkin (right), a former Steelers player, as he speaks at the ManUp conference in Pittsburgh.

Justin Merriman for The Undefeated

Steelers tight end Vance McDonald said a subtle undercurrent of faith runs through Tomlin’s interactions with his team.

“He does a great job of his approach as coach, and as leader of the Steelers, of applying biblical and Christian truths but doing it in a way that’s not right in your face,” McDonald told me. “And it’s superdelicate: You’re going to overstep or you’re not going to present it as much as you should. It’s delicate, but he does a great job. He does it humbly, and he does it well, because guys respond to things that he says. And when you are a Christian in the audience, you’re like, ‘Hey, I know exactly what he’s talking about.’ ”

Tomlin, 47, told me his method is to encourage his players to grow personally and spiritually, “but they’re not tangible goals. I want to see continual growth as players and as men, and I think we all should aspire to live our lives in that way. This journey of life that we’re on, or this journey that is a professional football career, you’d like to think that you’re learning from the experiences that you go through. You’d like to think that you’re getting better through the process, and that’s my hope for them.”

Tomlin (center) poses for a photo with a group of men during a VIP meet-and-greet at the ManUp Pittsburgh conference, which drew about 2,000 people.

Justin Merriman The Undefeated

At the ManUp conference, which drew about 2,000 people to a huge church in suburban Pittsburgh earlier this summer, Tomlin showed another side of his coiled-steel work demeanor. He smiled and joked. He wore no hat or sunglasses. He spoke often about the challenges he and his wife face raising their daughter and two sons, including the eldest, Michael Tomlin Jr., nicknamed “Dino,” an incoming freshman wide receiver at the University of Maryland.

Tomlin got one of his biggest laughs at the conference after revealing that his kids accuse him of enjoying their “short-term misery” because it provides teachable moments. Dino finished second in the state of Pennsylvania in the 100-meter dash his junior year, then missed the 2019 championship with a hamstring injury. “Man, I kind of enjoyed it,” Tomlin said, then corrected himself. “I’m just gonna tell you straight up: I enjoyed it.

“It was an opportunity for me, one last opportunity for me, to have my hands on him and be around him as he endures adversity,” Tomlin said. “Injury is a part of sport an any level, particularly once you get beyond high school. So, man, it’s a great opportunity for me to watch him deal with injury in a professional life manner and do the things that you’re required to do.”

Tomlin has a career regular-season record of 125-66-1 with the Steelers and is one of only two African American head coaches in the NFL.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

He spoke about growing up without his father in the football hotbed of Hampton Roads, Virginia. Until age 5, Tomlin lived with his mother and older brother at his grandparents’ home. His mother then got her own apartment and later remarried. Tomlin credits his grandfather, stepfather and youth coaches with serving as his father figures.

“I didn’t get into this to be the head football coach of the Steelers, to be quite honest with you,” Tomlin said during his keynote address at ManUp. “When you come from a less-than-advantageous background, socioeconomic issues and things of that nature, fatherlessness is very prevalent in those communities. And so those young men, they look around and they’re looking for truth. Forget what people say, they look at how [other people] live, how they conduct themselves, what the day-to-day looks like, and the most stand-up guys in my community were coaches. Those are not only the guys that told me right from wrong, but when I watched them, they were living it out.

“I just had so much respect for the living witnesses and for the lives of those men, and wanted to be like them. I wanted to impact kids that were like me.”

Tomlin on his coaching style: “I try to display legitimate humility. There’s not enough of it. And boy, there’s plenty of opportunities to learn it.”

Justin Merriman for The Undefeated

Tomlin is now a living witness for the grown men who play for the Steelers. He was 34 when he was named head coach in 2007. In 2009, he became the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl. He reached another Super Bowl in 2011 but lost to Green Bay. Now with a career regular-season record of 125-66-1, and one of the best winning percentages in football, Tomlin is one of only two African American head coaches in the NFL. He should soon surpass Dungy as the most successful black coach in league history.

Asked by a ManUp audience member what role faith plays in his coaching, he cited the Christian maxim that “humility is confidence properly placed in God.”

“That is my coaching style … I try to display legitimate humility,” Tomlin said. “There’s not enough of it. And boy, there’s plenty of opportunities to learn it. I just try to live that out in every way that I can, to show legitimate humility, and that I got my confidence properly placed.”

Ronnell Heard, head football coach at Imani Christian Academy in Pittsburgh, and his twin brother, Rodney, an assistant coach at Imani, said Tomlin’s remarks helped them keep faith central to their coaching. “Coach Tomlin spoke about the elephant in the room,” Ronnell said.

“Faith is the biggest aspect of how we coach,” Rodney said. “Everything we do, we put God first. Our performance on the field is in honor of God. The way we conduct ourselves is in honor of God.”

When I asked Tomlin what role prayer plays in his coaching, he said he never prays for victory. “Just leadership, good decisions, but not necessarily anything specific relative to the outcome of games. We’ve all been blessed in all the appropriate ways. I just ask for the wisdom and discernment that comes with the decision-making and leading these guys.”

He became most animated when I asked if there is any conflict between the qualities associated with great football players — ferocious, violent, merciless — and the kindness and mercy encouraged by New Testament scriptures such as “the meek shall inherit the earth” or the Gospel of John’s “God is love.”

Clinton Bridges, 49, of East Liberty, Pennsylvania, asks Tomlin a question during a breakout session at ManUp Pittsburgh. Bridges coaches basketball and expressed his concern about young men swearing.

Justin Merriman for The Undefeated

“I don’t think there’s a conflict at all,” Tomlin said with a smile. “If Jesus was a football player, I think he would go extremely hard and extremely fair. I think he would finish. I think he would embody all the tough elements of the game that we embrace. Notice I don’t talk about being dirty. I talk about just playing hard and fair, within the rules of the game and the ways that endear you to your teammates. Being selfless in your efforts.”

What position would Jesus play, coach?

“Good question. Let me think about that for a second.

“He’d be a quarterback and a middle linebacker — because you would want to put the game in His hands.”

Bucks’ Malcolm Brogdon: ‘My life passion is not basketball. It’s helping people.’ The third-year guard discusses his efforts to bring clean water to East Africa

Milwaukee Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon played a big role in the team’s Game 2 win on Friday night with 14 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds off the bench.

But after the game he was more excited about a larger contribution.

On the set with TNT’s Inside the NBA crew, Hall of Famer Charles Barkley made a surprise $45,000 donation to Brogdon’s Hoops2O initiative, which raises funds to build water wells in East Africa. With Barkley’s contribution, Hoops2O has now raised $274,200 in less than a year.

“It’s extremely generous of [Barkley],” Brogdon told The Undefeated. “Not only does his donation significantly help my cause and thousands of people get access to clean water, but his interest creates a buzz that will magnify the addition that this initiative will get.”

Brogdon spearheaded the launch of Hoops2O on Oct. 29, 2018. Atlanta Hawks guard Justin Anderson, Brooklyn Nets guard Joe Harris, Los Angeles Clippers guard Garrett Temple and Minnesota Timberwolves forward Anthony Tolliver were named as part of Brogdon’s “Starting Five” in the Hoops2O Ballin’ for Buckets campaign. Hoops2O was born under the umbrella of the Waterboys initiative started by Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long, who got 29 players to commit funding after his foundation debuted in 2015. All the money raised through Hoops2O goes toward the building of solar-powered deep borehole wells in East African communities.

“What Malcolm and the Starting Five have accomplished since October is impressive,” said Long. “They set a lofty goal to bring Waterboys to the NBA and raise over a quarter of a million dollars in the first season. … Their involvement means that we will reach our shared goal of providing water to 1 million people that much faster.”

This offseason, Brogdon, Anderson and Harris are slated to go to Tanzania for a Hoops2O project.

“Hoops2O is an amazing initiative that Malcolm brought me into,” said Temple, who plans to make a Hoops2O trip to Africa next year. “When he asked me to be a part of the Starting Five, I jumped at the chance. Water is easily one of the most vital components of life. It feels good to be able to provide that to an area that really needs it.”

Malcolm Brogdon during a trip to Tanzania in July 2018.

Clay Cook Photography and Chris Long Foundation

Brogdon’s initial goal of raising $225,000 for Hoops2O this season has already been surpassed. Three wells are under construction, two more will begin construction next month and another pair will begin construction in the coming months. Each well provides fresh water for more than 13,000 people in each East African community. Waterboys and Hoops2O have combined to fund 61 wells in Tanzania and Kenya.

“I feel like it’s my calling and my passion in life,” said Brogdon. During a trip to Malawi at the age of 14 with his grandparents, he learned that many Africans do not have clean water. “I’ve always viewed it as my dream and something that I love to do. I view it as a tool, something I can gain resources, gain access, money and all these things that can influence and empower other peoples’ lives. Clean water is the way I wanted to go, and Africa is the place I am starting.

“I am very happy with where I am now and the work that is getting done.”

Brogdon, 26, went to Tanzania last offseason in his first efforts to learn about the need for water wells in East Africa. In July, the Atlanta native will fly into Kilimanjaro before he goes to visit wells that have been built as well as sites under consideration. The former University of Virginia star also plans on visiting several elementary schools that are in need of water.

Brogdon said he was heartbroken and further inspired to create Hoops2O after visiting elementary schools in Arusha, Tanzania, last year.

“They brought buckets from home to get water for themselves and their classmates. And there was a little river behind the school,” Brogdon said. “And behind the river there were shantytowns where people lived very poorly. They were littering into the river, and you could see all the drainage, all the trash, dirt and all types of stuff. Everything was running through the river. Ten or 12 feet up the river you could see a line of sewage going across it. All the water was filtering through it, so you knew all the water was bad.

“You could see the kids getting water with their buckets, drinking it and then handing it to their classmates. And after a while after they get to their teens, you can see their teeth rotting and decaying because … the water was so contaminated. It was so unbearable to see. There is so much we take for granted here in the States.”

Brogdon and the Bucks will play Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals in Toronto on Sunday. They are now two wins away from Milwaukee’s first NBA Finals appearance since 1974. No matter the outcome, Brogdon is already viewed as a champion in East Africa.

“They see me as a humanitarian. I’m so big that people wonder and ask if I play basketball. But it is not like people over there are following the NBA really hard,” Brogdon said. “Their worries are bigger than basketball. It’s clean water. It’s living. It’s necessities that they’re looking for. Not celebrities. …

“Basketball is my job, I love it. It’s the dream. But honestly, my life passion is not basketball. It’s helping people and using my resources that I have gotten from basketball.”

A visit to Louisiana State Penitentiary, and a lesson in forgiveness NFL wide receiver Torrey Smith shares his ministry experience at the prison

Editor’s note: Louisiana State Penitentiary is the largest maximum security prison in the United States. Also known as “Angola” because it was built on a former plantation that held many slaves from the African country, the prison has a long and notorious history, including convict leasing in the 1800s. It was also once dubbed “the bloodiest prison in America.”


A few months ago, I received a text from my former teammate Steve Smith Sr., a man who is like a brother to me:

“For the last few years I’ve been asked to do a prison visit by a friend named Lenny. He is the team chaplain for the Buffalo Bills. Last year, I finally went and it was a remarkable and unforgettable experience for me. I know everyone has their own things going on, but I told myself I wouldn’t be silent and keep it to myself. So I’m just doing what was placed on my heart. Pray about it. If what you read interests you hit me back. If it doesn’t I completely understand.”

After I read Steve’s text message, I thought about the many times I’ve visited prisons during my career, including San Quentin in California, so I knew what to expect. I responded and let Steve know that I was interested in joining the trip. I would later find out I was wrong. The visit to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola State Prison, turned out to be a transformative experience for me — an emotional journey that challenged my assumptions about rehabilitation and forgiveness.

Buffalo Bills Chaplain Len Vanden Bos leads a prayer on the field after a game against the Miami Dolphins at New Era Field. Buffalo beats Miami 24 to 16.

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Steve’s friend Lenny turned out to be Len Vanden Bos, my chaplain at Pro Athletes Outreach, an organization that builds community among pro athletes and couples to grow spiritually and have a positive impact around them. Through his Higher Ground Ministry, he takes current and former NFL players, along with Christian leaders, to prisons to spread the gospel and encourage people who are incarcerated.

I knew that Angola was a maximum security prison filled with people who were facing lengthy sentences, some convicted of violent crimes like murder or rape but others convicted under the state’s harsh habitual offender laws for which Louisiana is famous. I also assumed from everything I had heard that people would be locked in small cages with little interaction with each other outside of the prison yard. As we toured the former plantation, built on more than 18,000 acres, however, I was shocked to see men walking around, cleaning up and washing cars as if they weren’t incarcerated at all. Some were dressed in plainclothes; no one wore chains. The men slept in a big room with bunk beds, which reminded me of the 1999 movie Life, where Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence play two Harlem bootleggers sentenced to life in prison for a phony murder charge. The reality of what I saw was a lot to take in, and as we walked around, I wondered how could the most violent men in Louisiana live together in what appears to be a very peaceful environment.

I don’t mean to glorify this prison. It is a prison, after all, and people are held in cells and often forced to work in sweltering heat with little money. And as we continued to walk through the prison grounds, I saw men working, some for as little as 2 cents an hour, making T-shirts for the government and license plates for every driver in Louisiana, or raising cattle to be sold on the market.

A prisoner walks thru a fenced section toward a guard tower at Angola Prison in 2013.

Giles Clarke/Getty Images

Three things struck me as we toured the grounds.

First, I feel strongly that this was modern-day slavery, and it was wrong. Then I remembered slavery is still legal as defined by the 13th Amendment, which says, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, EXCEPT as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Angola, like other prisons, benefits from this exemption. And I realized, yes, this is America.

Second, I witnessed how people accused of even the most serious crimes and living in extremely difficult conditions could work, live together peacefully and change. I wondered if those people working so well together were really still even a danger to anyone. This experience drove home the importance of second chances, because people change, even those who have caused terrible harm.

As we passed a church on the property that was built by the men, for example, I was struck by what they had accomplished — and what it demonstrated. I saw two incarcerated men working on a building with all of the tools they needed: hammers, nails, screwdrivers, screws, it was all there. It was a striking visual that remains stamped in my memory. Although I strongly believed that it was wrong that they were working for pennies on the dollar, their ability to do so conveyed a sense of collaboration and responsibility that led me to also believe they had hope.

The system is complicated.

The Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, and nicknamed the “Alcatraz of the South” and “The Farm” is a maximum-security prison farm in Louisiana operated by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections.

Giles Clarke/Getty Images

Throughout my visit at Angola, I saw men working and trying to better themselves through a variety of impactful programs offered there. Yes, some will, in fact, die in prison, while others will earn the second chance they deserve.

Unfortunately for the men awaiting their second chance in America, their fate rests with the political, and not with what is right. In several states, freedom is not just determined by one’s actions while incarcerated or even by the parole or pardon board. In some cases, situations like pardons require the signature of the governor of that particular state, whose contact with the person who is incarcerated is limited to a manila file folder even if the state-approved board has deemed the person worthy of a second chance.

Legislators have the power to change that, and in some cases, states have created a “no action” law that allows for pardons to go through with the recommendation of the board if it is not signed before the governor has left his term. This takes the burden of a final decision off the back of the governor, who may or may not have political concerns, while offering the offender a second chance based on the approval of the experienced members of the pardon board.

Many men and women who deserve second chances remain in prison because of politics or because they are considered a high-profile case in their state. It’s not fair to the incarcerated men and women or the bodies that govern them.

And then a third thing occurred to me.

Overall, spending time with the people at Angola led me to question my own views of forgiveness. As a follower of Christ, I believe that we are forgiven. But I had to ask myself, “Am I really forgiving others? If my forgiveness is conditional, is it real?” I’ve spent many years holding grudges against people who’ve wronged me in some way, and I imagined the grace summoned by victims of crime when they forgive those who have harmed them. I seek the peace and freedom that the forgiven men feel.

Wide receiver Steve Smith #89 of the Baltimore Ravens prays with teammates and player from the Philadelphia Eagles after the Baltimore Ravens defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 27-26 at M&T Bank Stadium on December 18, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Many of the men at Angola had already found peace through Christ, which allowed them to feel forgiven. As I prayed with them at the end of our visit, worshipping alongside men who had committed violent crimes and were now paying their debt to society, I witnessed the power of real forgiveness. It was a lesson that I carried with me when I left, and it is a lesson that I will share with the hope that others can accept and give forgiveness too.

Nike drops limited-edition Colin Kaepernick ‘Icon’ jersey Kaepernick’s name is on a Nike jersey once again and he hasn’t played since 2017

Colin Kaepernick has proven he doesn’t have to be on the roster of a team to dominate every NFL conversation. He also doesn’t have to be in the league to have his own jersey.

On Wednesday — five days after the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback and current Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid reached a settlement with the NFL concerning their collusion grievances against the league — Nike released the limited-edition Kaepernick Icon jersey, which is available on the brand’s website in men’s sizes (small to 3XL) for $150 each.

“We believe Colin Kaepernick is one of the most inspirational athletes of this generation, who has leveraged the power of sport to help move the world forward,” a Nike spokesperson told The Undefeated. “The jersey marks Nike’s continued product collaboration with Colin.”

The new apparel arrived almost six months after Nike made Kaepernick the face of a reboot to the company’s iconic Just Do It campaign, which celebrated its 30-year anniversary in 2018. Kaepernick appeared in an ad with the slogan, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

He also narrated a two-minute spot, titled Dream Crazy, which first aired on TV during the NFL regular-season opener between the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles.

In September, it was originally reported that Nike had no plans to give Kaepernick a signature shoe or extensive clothing line despite being at the forefront of the company’s messaging. However, in late October, Nike dropped the Kaepernick Icon Tee, which went on sale at retail for $50 and sold out within hours. The black long-sleeved shirt with “KAEPERNICK” sprawled across the back was restocked in November and sold out for a second time.

Kaepernick now has his name on the back of a Nike jersey once again, though he hasn’t played a down of pro football since 2017. The quarterback-turned-social activist has gone unsigned by all 32 NFL teams after he began kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 as a statement against racial injustice in the United States. His stance sparked a leaguewide movement of player protests, which has continued even without Kaepernick on the sidelines of NFL stadiums.

Two days before Super Bowl LIII, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James — one of Nike’s biggest and most impactful athletes — arrived in Oakland, California, for a game against the Golden State Warriors wearing the Kaepernick jersey. He teased a potential release, just like he did last October when he rocked the Kaepernick Icon Tee to a Lakers preseason game three weeks before it debuted.

Now, the jersey — like the overwhelming support of Kaepernick’s cause — is very much so real.

The jersey is nondescript, with black mesh and his last name, No. 7 and Nike swooshes all in white. There’s also a specially designed jock tag featuring two logos — a “K” next to an illustration of Kaepernick’s Afro’d head. Unlike a typical Nike NFL jersey, it notably doesn’t feature the league’s logo at the V of the collar, or a team name/crest on the chest above the front number. Nike’s Kaepernick Icon jersey is also almost identical to the limited-edition #IMWITHKAP jersey that went on sale in September on Kaepernick’s website. Kaepernick announced on Twitter that 20 percent of all proceeds from the sale of the jerseys would go to his Know Your Rights Camp — a free campaign for youths that he founded to raise awareness on higher education, self-empowerment and instruction on how to properly interact with law enforcement in various scenarios. Not only did the jersey sell out, it’s been embraced by celebrities and entertainers across the world.

Everyone from Grammy-nominated singers Jhené Aiko and Trey Songz to Warriors stars Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown, radio personality Ebro Darden, actor Jesse Williams and renowned civil rights activist Angela Davis have been photographed in the jersey. J. Espinosa, the official in-game DJ for the Oakland Raiders, also wore it when he won a world DJing championship in Taipei. And the night of the Super Bowl, Kaepernick tweeted a picture of John Carlos — another athlete-turned-activist who raised the Black Power salute with fellow American sprinter Tommie Smith at the 1968 Games — in the #IMWITHKAP jersey. “It means the world to me to have the support of John Carlos, an Icon who paved the way for myself and many others to continue to fight systemic oppression,” Kaepernick wrote. “Thank you for your sacrifice for us! ✊🏾.”

Our list of 24 can’t-miss books for holiday gifting From a photographic history of hip-hop to magical fantasy to sports activism, it’s all here

Searching for the perfect present for the reader in your family? Or maybe it’s time for some self-gifting (we won’t judge, we promise). From essays to young adult novels to photography and poetry, The Undefeated has you covered. Here’s a collection of some of the most intriguing, well-crafted and engaging books of 2018.

FICTION

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (YA)

Don’t believe anyone who tells you slam poetry is dead, because they clearly missed the memo about Elizabeth Acevedo, an award-winning, fire-spitting Afro-Latino poet who has penned an entire novel in verse. Acevedo won the National Book Award for young people’s literature with a coming of age story about Xiomara Batista. Xiomara lives in Harlem, and as she begins to form her own opinions — about religion, about street harassment, about what it means to become a woman — she collects her thoughts in verse and finds a home in her school’s slam poetry club.


Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (YA)

If you find yourself hooked after reading Tomi Adeyemi’s debut fantasy novel, fear not. She’s got two more coming, all about strong-willed Zélie Adebola and her adventures as she tries to bring magic back to her fictive country of Orïsha, where power has been consolidated by an evil, magic-hating king. The stakes are high: If Zélie fails, Orïsha will lose its magic forever. There’s no shortage of black fantasy fans (remember when Buzzfeed imagined if Hogwarts were an HBCU?), and now young readers have another set of books to add to their collections, right alongside Harry Potter, Shadowshaper and the Bartimaeus trilogy. Adeyemi weaves a story that tackles colorism, class and racism with West African mythology and Yoruba traditions.


My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel crackles with dark humor as she traces the story of sibling rivalry between Nigerian good girl Korede and her maybe-sociopath murderer of a sister, Ayoola. Ayoola’s boyfriends keep turning up dead, and poor, put-upon Korede keeps finding ways to keep her sister free. That is, until Korede’s crush expresses an interest in her sister and Korede is faced with a choice.


A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley

Jamel Brinkley’s debut collection of nine short stories is a meditation on modern masculinity, told from the perspectives of various black men in New York, mostly in the Bronx and Brooklyn. The National Book Award finalist focuses on how ideas about what it means to be a man are passed down through generations, and what it takes to define oneself as notions about sex and gender continue to evolve.


The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard

Ladee Hubbard has introduced a new framework for thinking about W.E.B. Du Bois, the Talented Tenth and obligations to fellow black people in struggle against white supremacy: a fantastical crime novel about a black family with ridiculously random superpowers (one of the Ribkins can see colors that remain obscured to others, while another can scale walls like a spider). The protagonist is 72-year-old Johnny, who has gotten himself in way too deep with a mobster. The Talented Ribkins, which won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for debut fiction, is an inventive layer cake of humor, intrigue and insights about race.


Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (YA)

Remember the head-scratching reaction you had the first time you heard about Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter? Well, get over it, because literature about a Civil War-era America complicated by the existence of the undead is most definitely a thing. Enter Jane McKeene, the protagonist of Justina Ireland’s bone-chilling account of an America in which the many who died at Gettysburg became, well, not so dead. Jane has been sent to Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, where she learns how to wield a scythe, which is definitely a subversive take on the real-life Miss Porter’s, where women like Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis learned to be the sort of woman who knows when and how to use an asparagus server. In this America, black and Native people are still doing the bidding of power-wielding whites, except now that bidding includes slaying zombies. Just imagine the troubles that can arise when an entire underclass of people is armed with very sharp weapons.


An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Tayari Jones, whose novel made this year’s National Book Award long list, trains her lens on the very personal implications of unjust policing and mass incarceration. Her leading lady, Celestial, is married to a man who has been wrongfully imprisoned. While both Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and American Marriage examine the implications of what it means to be a black woman with a partner imprisoned in the American South, the avenues they take vary wildly. Ward’s focus is on the poor, while Jones takes a look at what imprisonment means for a well-to-do middle-class couple who never envisioned this life for themselves, and the romantic compromise Celestial makes in order to cope.


Wild Beauty by Ntozake Shange

A collection of poems old and new, in English and Spanish, Wild Beauty is the last published work of the late poet, dancer and playwright. Ntozake Shange died in October at 70. She’d suffered a series of strokes in 2004, but as she recovered, she kept writing. Wild Beauty offers one last bittersweet opportunity to connect with an American treasure.


Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

The theme that unites Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ debut short story collection is one with which many black Americans can identify: being The Only. As in, The Only Black Kid in Private School, or The Only Black Professor, or The Only Black Woman in Yoga Class. In this collection, which made this year’s National Book Award long list, Thompson-Spires conducts a narrative thought experiment, illustrating the world as it’s processed through a variety of Onlys who are carrying around the burden of being representatives for an entire race of people. Lest you think Thompson-Spires has gone too far, never forget the existence of an embarrassingly uncomfortable real-life account of a white woman who projected all of her insecurities onto the only black woman in her yoga class, and then wrote an essay about it. In the world of Thomson-Spires’ characters, readers are encouraged to think about the world from the perspective of The Only, and not the voyeur.

NON-FICTION

Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld

Anyone who’s enjoyed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s foray into cultural criticism as a contributor to The Hollywood Reporter knows that his brain is brimming with trenchant observations. Becoming Kareem offers much of the same, though instead of looking at the entertainment industry, Abdul-Jabbar turns inward to explain his evolution as an athlete, activist and thinker. It’s a worthy addition for anyone who wants an insider’s account of processing where you fit when you’re young, black and blazingly talented and your country is erupting with change.


American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment by Shane Bauer

Shane Bauer, a journalist for Mother Jones, famously spent four months working undercover as a guard in a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. Bauer elaborates on his experiences in Winnfield and shapes them with historical context to explain how we arrived at mass incarceration as we currently know it. Bauer shines much-needed sunlight on a crisis that readers of The New Jim Crow and watchers of 13th will find familiar: a system profiting off the warehousing and mistreatment of millions of Americans, a disproportionate number of whom are black and brown.


Things That Make White People Uncomfortable by Michael Bennett and Dave Zirin

If you’re an athlete writing about the intersection of sports, social issues and race, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more well-suited co-author than Dave Zirin, the sports columnist at The Nation. Here, the Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman melds the personal with the political — one chapter is called “The NCAA Will Give You PTSD.” The through line is a commitment to standing up for the little guy, even when the little guy happens to be 250-plus pounds. It’s a stirring and smart trip through Michael Bennett’s musings on race and power.


White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo

There’s no time in American history when this book hasn’t been needed, but, boy, is it ever timely now. Robin DiAngelo’s explanations for why we’re so stymied when it comes to discussing race is refreshing, fact-based and patient. While it’s a book that contains helpful information for everyone, White Fragility is an ideal starting place for white people who want to be allies in anti-racism but feel intimidated about where to begin.


Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves edited by Glory Edim

The founder of the popular Brooklyn, New York-based book club (now in its third year of existence) has released a book of essays written by literary luminaries including Jesmyn Ward, Lynn Nottage, Jacqueline Woodson, Rebecca Walker and Barbara Smith. Every woman answers the question: When did you first see yourself in literature? Thanks to Glory Edim’s work, black women and girls have a reliable space online, and in print, where they know they’ll always be seen.


The Revolt of the Black Athlete by Harry Edwards

If there’s a book that synthesizes and gives historical context to the wave of social activism that’s swept through modern sports, it’s this one. First published in 1968, it has been resurrected, with a new introduction and afterword for a 50th anniversary edition. Harry Edwards traces the history of black athletes from Emancipation onward, explaining how race has always influenced how black athletes have been received and even used in the U.S. government’s efforts at soft power diplomacy overseas. Through Edwards’ eyes, we see the awakening of black athletes to their own power not as a surprise but as an inevitability.


Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig

Jonathan Eig conducted more than 500 interviews to report this comprehensive tome on the life of The Champ, and he writes with as much style and verve as Muhammad Ali brought to the ring. Eig provides sweeping context for Ali’s participation in and significance to social movements, from the fight for civil rights to protests against the Vietnam War. Rather than shy away from Ali’s internal contradictions, Eig runs at them head-on, which makes Ali more compelling than any of the more hagiographic attempts to capture his life. Ali is the winner of the 2018 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing. (Disclosure: Eig has also contributed to The Undefeated.)


How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide by Crystal M. Fleming

You may know sociologist Crystal Fleming from her flame-throwing Twitter feed. In her second book, the Stony Brook University professor tackles an obstacle that hampers a lot of writing about race in America: moving past Race 101. Because our country isn’t operating from an agreed-upon foundation of established historical facts — for instance, every discussion of Confederate monuments must include a basic explanation of the Lost Cause and why it’s bunk. Therefore, our national discussions don’t move forward so much as stall on a treadmill powered by history textbooks that label enslaved Africans as “immigrants.” Fleming offers readers an easily digestible, well-researched primer, as well as a useful series of steps for “becoming racially literate.” In the words of Biggie: “If you don’t know, now you know.” No excuses!


There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald

Moving up the class ladder isn’t an impossible feat, but it’s certainly a difficult one. In this memoir, Casey Gerald writes of growing up in Dallas with his sister and learning to survive on their mother’s disability checks. Football provided opportunities for Gerald; he played at Yale while studying political science. The same sport left his grandfather’s body broken. With elegant, captivating prose, Gerald traces a multigenerational story of race, class and privilege and what it means to grasp at limited opportunities for all they are worth, with one’s faith guiding the way.


This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins

If Lena Dunham is any indication, it’s almost never a good idea to label one person as the voice of a generation. However, Morgan Jerkins is definitely a voice, and she’s one worth taking seriously. In her debut essay collection, Jerkins tackles what it means to be living as a black woman in America today with an authoritativeness that’s rare and impressive for a woman with years to go before her 30th birthday. In bringing a relatable voice to discussing the alienation many black women encounter, both within the feminist movement and in society at large, Jerkins has announced herself as a vital social critic with plenty to say.


Heavy by Kiese Laymon

For anyone who misses Gawker and Kiese Laymon’s presence there, Heavy is a long-awaited essay collection from one of the country’s most thoughtful and incisive writers on race. In Heavy, Laymon contemplates his upbringing in Mississippi and his relationships with the women in his life, especially his mother and grandmother. The #MeToo movement has brought new visibility to the ubiquity of sexual abuse in our culture for women, but many male victims still grapple with shame when it comes to publicly discussing their experiences. Here, Laymon writes with elegance and fearlessness about his own experiences with sexual abuse and, in doing so, helps lift its taboo.


Becoming by Michelle Obama

The former FLOTUS created a storm with the initial wave of revelations contained in her memoir. Michelle Obama discusses the loneliness she felt after a miscarriage and reveals that her children were conceived with the assistance of in vitro fertilization. In doing so, she helps remove the stigma from episodes that occur in many women’s lives but remain taboo. Obama gained the trust of a nation by being charming, down-to-earth and candid. In Becoming, Obama takes advantage of an opportunity to fill in the many blanks of her life and open herself to those who felt they already knew her while making the case for why the Obamas are the ultimate American family.


Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry

How is it possible that someone with as much name recognition as Lorraine Hansberry could also be considered a hidden figure? Well, because most of us never learned much about her aside from the fact that she wrote A Raisin in the Sun. Imani Perry gives Hansberry her due in this deeply researched biography, fleshing out her life as a writer, thinker and activist whose contributions to American society go far beyond one play. In Perry’s hands, Hansberry comes alive as self-possessed, nervy and extremely witty — a woman whose personal heroes included Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution, and Hannibal, the North African general.


Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop by Vikki Tobak

Contact High traces hip-hop’s evolution from 1979 to 2012 by giving readers a behind-the-scenes look at the industry through the contact sheets of the photographers documenting it. Not only does Vikki Tobak provide insight into what goes into a great image by providing the shots that normally remain unpublished, she’s also assembled compelling stories from some of hip-hop’s greatest voices, including RZA, Fab 5 Freddy, Questlove, Young Guru and DJ Premier. Contact High tells the stories of some of hip-hop’s most enduring images, from Jay-Z’s first photo shoot to the Stankonia album cover to XXL’s 1998 assemblage of talent for the photo A Great Day in Hip-Hop.


Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age by Donna Zuckerberg

Why should we be paying attention to how the classics are being discussed online? Because a significant segment of the population is, and they’re using their interpretations of texts such as Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, Xenophon’s Oeconomicus and Herodotus’ The Histories as the intellectual underpinnings for arguments about the supposed superiority of Western civilization, of whiteness and of men. Donna Zuckerberg explains how the alt-right, incels and other online communities are forming their own theories based on ancient texts. It’s impossible to bust myths about the classics if you’re unfamiliar with them or the arguments their interpreters are using as weapons. For those who haven’t thought about the ancient philosophers since high school Latin, Zuckerberg makes everything clear.

If only black America could work together as well as the NBA champion Warriors Yet, professor Michael Eric Dyson says, ‘black folks are a league, not a team’

The Golden State Warriors will hold their victory parade in Oakland, California, Tuesday, celebrating the franchise’s third NBA title in four years.

This season’s accomplishment was heralded as the triumph of a great team and teamwork.

The Warriors are a team of stars, superstars, young players, veteran players, strong personalities and unique talents.

After the final game June 8, a few players hinted that internal pressures and undisclosed distractions had made 2017-2018 a particularly vexing campaign. Yet, the Warriors survived to win their third title since the 2015-2016 season.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of tumultuous 1968, I find myself wondering whether far-flung black America could use the Warriors’ brand of teamwork to achieve a championship in an atmosphere of clickbait self-centeredness and narcissism.

The civil rights movement was a testament to the bravery of little and the concerted action of many. Just as the Warriors had their issues, there were tensions and rivalries with the movement but the brutality and persistence of white supremacy were often enough to force alliances.

“We’ve always had disagreements and scuffles,” professor Michael Eric Dyson said. “We’re going to have skirmishes. All black people don’t have to agree with all black people in order for black people to succeed.”

“We’ve always had disagreements and scuffles,” professor Michael Eric Dyson said during a recent conversation. “We’re going to have skirmishes. All black people don’t have to agree with all black people in order for black people to succeed.”

We were discussing Dyson’s new book, What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America. The book centers on a 1963 conversation between Robert F. Kennedy and a group of handpicked black celebrities and activists about the smoldering racial tensions in America. Kennedy became annoyed when his guests offered a no-holds-barred assessment of racism, including the Kennedys’ culpability.

The book’s overarching themes were the need to speak truth to (white) power and the need for white power to listen.

I told Dyson that I felt African-Americans spend far too much time persuading the white power structure to listen. I used a sports-team analogy, suggesting it was like Tyronn Lue, the Cleveland Cavaliers coach, going to the Golden State locker room before a game and asking Warriors coach Steve Kerr to take his foot off the Cavaliers’ neck.

Why should he? They are opponents.

Just as Lue worked tirelessly — and ultimately unsuccessfully — to devise a strategy to defeat the Warriors, more time and energy is needed to get our own locker room, the black team’s locker room, committed to winning. That’s because racism is deeply rooted and an omnipresent opponent.

We must do everything it takes to achieve victory: prison reform, police accountability and economic justice. We must be as committed to the proposition of teamwork toward this end.

Dyson accepted the metaphor of the black team but argued that African-Americans are far too diverse and varied to be a single team.

“Black folks are a league, not a team,” he said.

On top of that, he argued, you have to figure out who’s on your team. Everybody who is your color isn’t on your team.

Regardless, great teams bolster the NBA. The majority of franchises are in disarray. Some teams are talent-laden yet never win. Some, such as the New York Knicks, the NBA’s most valuable franchise, don’t have to win to turn a profit. Some black “teams” are like that as well, where individual success is valued over collective success.

The beauty of Golden State, and before that a franchise like San Antonio, is understanding the vision of collective gain vs. individual gain.

I raised the issue of teamwork and great teams with David West, the Warriors’ 37-year-old veteran forward. West is a veteran of 15 NBA seasons. He came into the league in 2003. West has been with four teams, has been in the playoffs but did not win a title until he joined Golden State.

David West of the Golden State Warriors poses for a portrait with the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy after defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 4 of the 2018 NBA Finals on June 8.

Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

He has won two titles with Golden State.

West said the most important element for Golden State this season — and for successful teams in general — was “the ability to put aside personal agendas for the time that we are together. When we go to practice, guys aren’t bringing their issues into practice. Guys aren’t bringing their own ‘I’m going to do it my way’ into the group environment.”

West mentioned the Warriors’ morning music locker-room playlist as a small but poignant example of the give-and-take that forms the backbone of a successful team.

“Usually, wherever you go, the young guys rule the music,” said West, who played with New Orleans, Charlotte, San Antonio and Indiana before joining Golden State.

At Golden State, the distribution of music is generationally diverse, from Gordon Bell, the 23-year-old center, to West. The music is a thread that connects generations and sensibilities.

“You might hear Earth Wind & Fire and Kool & the Gang one morning. You hear Michael Jackson another morning, and you might hear Kodak Black the next morning,” said West.

The tone is set from veteran players Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant or Draymond Green; it’s set for everything from music to free-flowing, no-holds-barred conversation in the locker room.

“In terms of what we talk about, nothing is out of bounds,” West said.

Talent matters and continuity matters. But there are teams that have talent and continuity that do not win.

On the team or in the movement, teamwork requires selflessness and sacrifice that might mean putting oneself in danger or at risk to achieve a greater good.

Each generation, of players or activists, must decide what is that greater good. What is the connective thread? The common denominator?

On the sports team, the thread is winning. On the black team, the thread varies from generation to generation.

In his book, Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South, historian Michael Gomez writes about Denmark Vesey’s insurrection of 1822 when people of African descent “born in either Africa or the Americas, coalesced for the purposes of realizing a common objective.”

Gomez pointed out that even free blacks cast their lot with those in legal bondage “after sober assessment revealed that their own status was precarious if not illusory.”

In Vesey’s failed rebellion, the unifying element was religion, though that ultimately was not enough to overcome social and ethnic differences. In 1968, we were unified by the brutality of a deeply racist system determined to sustain itself.

In 2018, sports and high-profile sports stars making statements and taking stands have become a unifying thread. The NFL champions Philadelphia Eagles, largely because of the protest of black players, did not go to visit the White House. The Warriors twice have said they would not attend if invited.

West said social consciousness seeped into the Golden State locker room where there were several conversations over the last two seasons about whether to protest during the playing of the national anthem. There were agreements and disagreements, but nothing got in the way of the ultimate quest to win a third NBA title.

“Black people have to give up the notion that we have to be unified in order for us to have progress,” said Dyson. “We do not.”

Commitment is more crucial than consensus.

Whether achieving an NBA title or the endless quest for freedom and justice, there must be a commitment to achieve collective victories.

The Warriors’ parade Tuesday, their third in four years, is a testament to dedication, vision and the power of teamwork.

Lynx celebrate WNBA championship with D.C. students Team opts for community service after failing to get White House invite

Cheryl Reeve believes her Minnesota Lynx epitomize what a champion should be. They aren’t just tremendous basketball players, they’re leaders in their communities, whether in Minnesota or the nation’s capital. And that is more important to Reeve and her players than being fêted on the South Lawn of the White House.

The Lynx did not receive an invite to the White House after winning the 2017 WNBA championship. The team, which plays the Washington Mystics on Thursday, came to D.C. a day early to work with Samaritan’s Feet Shoes of Hope to distribute shoes to children from low-income families as part of their championship celebration.

The team arrived Tuesday and distributed shoes and socks from Nike, Jordan Brand and DTLR on Wednesday at Payne Elementary, a school where 30 percent of the students are homeless. Members of the team also hit the blacktops to go over basketball drills with the kids and then returned inside to be celebrated in the school’s auditorium. The Lynx ended the event with a photo op with the 2017 WNBA Finals trophy.

“I want to say thank you to these players for being such amazing athletes, incredible role models and choosing to be here today to show how champions act,” Reeve said as the team stood on the stage to be recognized.

Asked how this post-Finals celebration stacked up with her other experiences, four-time WNBA champion Maya Moore spoke fondly of being invited to the White House under the Barack Obama administration after winning titles in 2011, 2013 and 2015.

But she said spending the afternoon playing basketball and giving out new Jordans to more than 300 elementary school students made this celebration stand out.

“I’m so ridiculously blessed to have so many memories at the White House, so many great ones,” Moore said Wednesday while standing on the blacktop. “This will probably be more unique. We made some great memories with these kids. … We’ll definitely remember this.”

Asked about President Donald Trump’s decision to not invite the Lynx to the White House or whether they would have gone if invited, most of the players said they wanted to focus on the kids and the positivity of Wednesday’s community service.

Trump disinvited the 2018 Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles to the White House this week and rescinded an invitation to the 2017 NBA champion Golden State Warriors last fall. Three leagues with predominantly black workforces — NBA, NFL and WNBA — have been spurned while leagues with majority-white workforces, the NHL and MLB, have been celebrated at the White House.

“Obviously, it does [bother me that the president is targeting black athletes],” Lynx guard Seimone Augustus said. “The NBA, the NFL, they’ve all been very vocal. The players — LeBron [James], Steph [Curry] and all of them — have been doing their job as far as letting people know their stance on the situation. And we’re going to continue to do our part. We’ve been doing this since last year with the anthem, but today just was a day where we felt like it was more important for us as a team, as a unit, to do something way more special than whatever is going on with the chaos of the White House and the invites and all that stuff.”

In July 2016, the Lynx stepped into the social activism spotlight when they came out with black-and-white warm-up shirts that read “Change starts with us. Justice & accountability.” On the backs of the shirts were the phrase “Black Lives Matter”; the names Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two black men killed by police; and the Dallas Police Department emblem (five officers were shot to death during a protest after Sterling and Castile were killed).

The Lynx players also linked arms during the national anthem, while the Los Angeles Sparks went to the locker room before Game 1 of the 2017 WNBA Finals.

Asked about the disparity in teams visiting the White House, Reeve said:

“I think it’s a confusing message. I don’t really want to take a deep dive into the diversity piece. I think it’s plain for people to see. And I think for us, we say we’re not going to let anyone steal our joy. At the end of the day, we don’t need the White House to celebrate our championship. This was an incredibly meaningful day and a way to commemorate it and showing how champions act, and what we’re about and what our league is about.”

How Meek Mill opened Sixers owner Mike Rubin’s — and so many others’— eyes to a broken criminal justice system From counted out to counted on: The rapper’s new freedom comes with reality’s nightmare — and a chance to change lives

And why I’m rappin’ like I got somethin’ to prove…

— Meek Mill, 2017’s “1942 Flows


Meek Mill told him. Meek made clear the harsh realities of the criminal justice system. Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin only wishes he had believed Meek sooner.

But now of course, Rubin — billionaire entrepreneur and minority owner of the New Jersey Devils and Crystal Palace FC, as well as the Sixers — has entered the pop cultural lexicon because of his close friendship with the Philadelphia MC born Robert Rimeek Williams. The two met while sitting courtside at the 2015 NBA All-Star Game in New York City.

But 48 hours before the Sixers’ season officially ended with a 114-112 Game 5 Eastern Conference semifinal loss in Boston, Rubin leaned forward over a round table in the Director’s Lounge at Wells Fargo Center. It was an hour before Game 4’s tipoff and VIPs maneuvered, ordering specialty cocktails.

But Mike Rubin is thinking back to conversations he and Meek had about the polarity of their realities. “Meek used to always say to me, ‘There’s two Americas.” I’d be like, ‘Dude, there’s one America.’ He was right,” Rubin says. “I was wrong. There’s America, and then there’s black America. I didn’t agree with him, but he proved to be right.”


Meek Mill’s lawyer, Brian McMonagle, who represented Bill Cosby before removing himself from that case, knew something was off when he entered the Philadelphia courtroom of Judge Genece E. Brinkley. Everyone was nervous, especially Meek. McMonagle saw six sheriff’s deputies. The hair on the back of his neck stood up.

“That told me she’d made her mind up, independent of any argument she was about to hear,” McMonagle says from his 19th-floor office overlooking Rittenhouse Square. It’s at “the heart of Center City’s most expensive and exclusive” neighborhood, essentially an alternate universe away from the North Philly blocks that cultivated Meek. “And obviously once you heard the sentence, it was like a punch in the throat.” On Nov. 6, 2017, Meek Mill was sentenced by Judge Brinkley to two to four years in the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill on a probation violation. Dirt bike riding (popping wheelies) was involved.

An entire courtroom was in shock. Meek immediately began removing his jewelry. For McMonagle, it was the first time in his 33 years of practicing law that he, the district attorney and the probation department were all on the same page — and the judge refused to accept the will of the parties. The case sparked national headlines and inspired rallies and the hashtag #FREEMEEK, simultaneously providing yet another glimpse into a criminal justice system that had haunted Meek since he was 19 — and the community from which he comes for far longer.

“They talking about ‘Free Meek’ and some of them got family members in jail? They supported me?”Meek Mill

During his time in the belly of the beast, Meek became larger than just a cult-y musical icon in his hometown of Philadelphia. He became a local sports Yoda. His 2012 “Dreams & Nightmares (Intro)” had long been revered in hip-hop circles for its energy, fearlessness and unabashedness. So it made sense that the Eagles adopted the record as their theme song en route to the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl victory. Likewise, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Markelle Fultz all visited Meek in prison — as the Sixers made it as close to the NBA Conference finals as they have since Allen Iverson’s apex. James Harden visited Meek as well. Julius Erving, Kevin Hart and several Eagles players showed up at rallies and lent their voices to the cause of securing Meek’s release, and to the larger cause at hand.

But neither money nor celebrity shielded Meek. In many ways, it seemed to make him more of a target. “I would’ve never discussed [the criminal justice system] with my daughter before,” says Mike Rubin, the sincerity in his voice impossible to ignore. “We got in the car and Meek told me a really scary story about how he grew up that I told my daughter last night. She couldn’t believe it. For me, it was eye-opening. Sometimes … you have moments in life that change your perspective.”

Last November changed Rubin’s view of life in America. He says he’s dedicating much of his focus and energy moving forward — and not just with Meek — to addressing what he calls “a completely broken system.”

Meek has been locked up several times before. As he said from the stage in a Tidal One-of-One conversation with Angie Martinez, “I just turned 31; I’ve been on probation since I was 19.”

Some of these arrests were perhaps warranted. But the root of the charges date back to 2007 when a member of Philly’s Narcotics Field Unit claimed Meek sold crack to an informant. Per Meek’s cousins, who were with him at the time, the arrest was abominable. “It was like three cops — two of them had his feet, and one of them had his arms,” Rasson Parker told Rolling Stone this year. “They basically used his head as a battering ram [to break through the door].”

Profane. Intense. It’s the zeitgeist of Meek’s catalog and a serious candidate for the greatest intro in rap history.

Meek met prison’s revolving door in 2008 and again in 2014. In 2016, he was sentenced to 90 days of house arrest for traveling without permission, forced to wear an ankle monitor, banned from recording music or traveling outside of Philadelphia. Others times he was violated for things like an altercation he got into after refusing to take a picture with a St. Louis airport employee. The charges varied, but there was one constant: Every probation violation he had was brought by Judge Brinkley, who is black. Her interest in him has been consistent.

Once inside, because of his celebrity status, Meek was placed in a mental health ward instead of in the larger general population of the prison. Incarcerated essentially for participating in a fight he didn’t start, and for popping wheelies on city streets, Meek was living beside people who smeared their own feces on walls. Per McMonagle, early on, Meek entered a prison meeting room appearing disheveled. “I thought while I was in there,” Meek told McMonagle, “that I had gone insane and didn’t know it.”

Even with one gold and two platinum albums, Meek remains rap’s quintessential underdog. It’s a role he’s comfortable in. “I’m in the business of proving people wrong,” he says en route to his conversation with Martinez. “Anytime people went against me, doubted me or actually offended me, it gave me the energy to go harder and win. I always had that drive growing up.” Meek played basketball growing up — but you can see why sports teams would love his energy.

Meek began his rap career street battling. Berks Street in North Philly was his first stage. From there, he created a steady barrage of mixtapes, starting with 2008’s Flamers. He signed to Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group in 2011, and to Roc Nation for management a year later, but the last three years of his career in particular have been a roller coaster. There was a high-profile beef with Drake, a high-profile relationship and breakup with Nicki Minaj. And now Meek has emerged — with help from his lawyers, from Mike Rubin and from the community surrounding him — on the other side of his recent prison stint as a new ideogram for the conversation surrounding criminal justice reform.’

Part of the mantra of his critically acclaimed 2017 Wins & Losses album is that growing up in the ghetto teaches you to cherish the wins and learn from the losses. “[It’s] beautiful,” says Meek. “I come from poverty, living without barely anything to my name, to making money and being able to take care of my family and travel the world. … I always reflect back to where I came from and where I’m at now, and it’s not too bad.”

It’s not without its dramas either. Nearly three years have passed since he and Drake experienced their very public falling-out. Meek, during the summer of 2015, held the No. 1 album in the country with Dreams Worth More Than Money. He also essentially accused Drake of not writing his rhymes (which remains a touchy subject in hip-hop circles), and while Drake was dubbed victorious in the virtual squabble thanks in part to his Grammy-nominated battle record “Back To Back,” Meek’s assertion that he didn’t write his own rhymes has been a thorn in Drake’s otherwise invincible side ever since.

“That beef was pretty much a social media thing,” producer Jahlil Beats says from his South Philadelphia studio. Jahlil has worked with Meek on more than 100 songs, and he’s also a co-producer with Rick Ross and Boi-1da of 2012’s Dreams and Nightmares, the album that features “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro),” an opener to the project that became an anthem — in meetings, in the locker room, on the field — for the Eagles. It’s also been on every Philly music lover’s gym playlist and car speakers for the past six years. I’m ridin’ ’round my city with my hand strapped on my toast/ Cause these n— want me dead and I gotta make it back home/ Cause my mama need that bill money/ My son need some milk/ These n— tryna take my life, they f— around, get killed/ You f— around, you f— around, you f— around, get smoked/ Cause these Philly n— I brought with me don’t f— around, no joke, no. Profane. Intense. It’s the zeitgeist of Meek’s catalog and a serious candidate for the greatest intro in rap history.

Maybe that’s the reason Meek’s most high-profile visitor, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, showed up two weeks before his April 24 release. Kraft witnessed the power of the song firsthand at this year’s Super Bowl as the Eagles charged the field at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. And the Boston Globe headline? “Who is rapper Meek Mill and why is Robert Kraft visiting him in prison?”

Asked perhaps because Kraft is one of the most visible team owners in a league at odds with exiled quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose protests for criminal justice reform helped lay groundwork for the activism around Meek’s recent incarceration and present-day activism. Kaepernick has defended Meek, calling him a victim of systemic oppression — a huge example of why the QB took a knee in the first place. In January, from behind bars, Meek donated $10,000 to Youth Services Inc. — an organization committed to servicing at-risk kids, teenagers and their families — as part of Kaepernick’s Million Dollar Challenge.

A source close to Kraft believes that his prison visit with Meek carried a binary opportunity. One: narrative change. Still suffering from fallout within the team because of his team’s unavoidable tie with President Donald Trump, Kraft may have wanted to demonstrate that he, and hence the Patriots, were in some way committed to the cause of criminal justice reform. Two? To perhaps help a young man he views as a friend. Although he isn’t completely familiar with all the details of Meek’s long, exasperating legal history, Kraft and Meek have social ties that go back at least a few years — as noted in a 2015 Rick Ross Instagram caption as #hoodbillionaire, as well as another this year in which Ross said the Patriots honcho was “signed to MMG.”

Michael Rubin recalls, in particular, a private jet conversation Meek and Kraft had about race, culture and how people treat each other. “Meek was really deep in his thoughts. … [Kraft] was really charged up to go see [Meek],” Rubin says.

“This whole situation is bigger than Meek Mill,” says Jahlil Beats. “We’re fighting for something … fighting for a change … [Kraft] could be [using it as public relations], but it’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than whatever people will gain from it. I get it, but I don’t think we should even be focused on that type of stuff. Because at the end of the day, it’s bringing the cause to the forefront.”

Jahlil has been working with Meek since his 2009 Flamers 3 mixtape and has produced/co-produced some of his biggest records: “Make ’Em Say,” “Willy Wonka,” “I’ma Boss” with Rick Ross, “Amen” with Drake and “Burn” with Big Sean. Meek’s time in and out of prison has led to Beats pursuing real estate and entrepreneurship opportunities that includes bringing the first DTLR store to his hometown of Chester, Pennsylvania.

Loyalty to Meek, though, still drives the producer. “We got about 100 records together. I’m so invested in Meek’s stuff that when he takes a hit, we all take a hit. This dude helped change my life. If he’s not out here doing his thing, and I can’t work with him, then how can we eat?”

Meek has survived public embarrassment on multiple fronts. He checked into rehab to battle Percocet addiction. But for Meek, what timelines dub failures are the opposite. As he told Angie Martinez, “If you follow me, you know I stay with ups and downs.”

Travel restrictions and ultimately prison stints prohibited Meek from marketing the brutally honest 2017 Wins & Losses project in the manner it deserved. But W&L did permeate the 12-month news cycle that is the NBA. The album’s second song, “Heavy Heart,” became the soundtrack many speculated LeBron James used to send subliminal shots toward former teammate Kyrie Irving when news broke that Irving wanted out of Cleveland.

Even Drake was shouting, “Free Meek!” from Australia a week after his former nemesis was sent to prison. Meek’s energy speaks to the fervor of so many young black men and women from similar upbringings. Some escape their harsh conditions. Some become ghosts of the streets. But the underlying pain in Meek’s music is what speaks to a generation — one seen every day in courtrooms, prison visitation cycles and living in sheer fear of law enforcement. There’s comfort experiencing shared pain together. That’s the story of Meek’s music: fervent, pained, real. It’s the story of being black in America, no matter where you’re from.


Meek’s prison-to-courtside odyssey the day he was released? An instantly classic, and unfortunate, hip-hop moment. Questionably imprisoned rapper gets out of prison, is flown by helicopter to Wells Fargo Center to be welcomed as prodigal son at the clinching game of his hometown team’s first round of the NBA playoffs. It’s one of those hood superhero tales that will expand exponentially as years pass — like Tupac flying straight to Los Angeles, in 1995, to begin recording what became his All Eyez On Me. Or Gucci Mane recording his homecoming ode “First Day Out The Feds” on, indeed, his first day out of prison in 2016. However triumphant, it’s part of the grizzliness of rap, and how society views the art and those who specialize in it, that being incarcerated underlines profiles.

But Meek has re-entered a society with new influence. “I’m different,” is what he told Angie Martinez on Wednesday. “We have hashtags and move on. Let’s not move on from this.” Meek’s philanthropic history is well-documented, even in prison. Now he is even more ready and willing to speak out about an issue that has defined his entire adult life. The magnitude of his support hit him while he was still in prison.

“I saw people standing out in the rain for me when they didn’t even know me. [That] changed my life,” he told Martinez. “They talking about ‘Free Meek’ and some of them got family members in jail? They supported me?”

Freedom is subjective, especially for Meek. “I ain’t felt free since I was 19,” he said. He’ll continue to fight until he’s completely exonerated. But now it’s more about helping those without the luxury of his celebrity. “If that was me in Starbucks, on probation,” he said with regard to the recent racial profiling controversy in his hometown, “I would have actually been found in technical violation.”

This topic can’t just live in the virtual world, though. For Meek, it can’t just be an internet conversation. It has to be rooted in real-life pain and real-life consequences. It’s that responsibility that weighs heavy on him, but one many believe could be the best revelation for him. “Meek is our sacrifice. His words are like scriptures,” says Boom 103.9’s DJ Amir. He and Meek’s relationship dates back to their teenage years. “He had to be held accountable for those actions even though if he ain’t do it [yet] as a boss your workers are still your liability. I think he understands that now. I think everything’s gonna look good for the future.”

That future is now. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf joined Meek in an intense news conference calling for criminal reform. On Tuesday, Meek delivered a ‘powerful’ speech at the Innocence Project gala in New York City. Meanwhile, Rubin promises he and Meek have “some pretty impressive plans” set to be announced in the “not too distant future.”

“There’s America, and then there’s black America.” — 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin

For Meek — and really for race relations moving forward, period — it’s about having the authentic painful conversations. The systematically inflicted pain Meek shares with so many, along with the passion it has birthed, is his story to tell. Through music, especially. The vehicle that’s driven Meek all the way from the back lots of North Philly to present-day stardom. “Some people trying to put me in a box,” he said. “I’m not going to be Martin Luther King Jr. I’m still gonna be Meek Mill. ”

Yet, he knows music can spread a message donations can’t buy. Jahlil Beats is excited to rejoin Meek in the studio. He compares their chemistry to that of DMX and Swizz Beatz in the early 2000s. “His voice is more important than anything,” says Jahlil. “With this album, it has to be about that. Even down to the requests of the production he’s been asking us to do, it’s a lot of big strings and a lot of uplifting vibes. He really has something to say.

Before getting up, he has one more thought. “I know he been through a lot of things, but this is something different. He’s doing interviews, but the music is how he’s really going to get to the people.”

Can the Philadelphia 76ers really get to the Finals, though? Shaq and Penny say yes The Magic did it in ‘95, and the Penny/Shaq era has a lot in common with Philly in 2018

The Philadelphia 76ers, after “trusting” the “process,” have completed their first playoff series victory since 2012. It happened in five games over the Miami Heat, and sharpshooter J.J. Redick led the charge with 27 points. But Tuesday night in Philly was far more than a series victory. It was a moment.

The presence of Meek Mill at courtside (he arrived via helicopter), in his first public appearance since being released from prison hours earlier, added to an already momentous occasion for a franchise on the way up. The rapper’s much-debated sentence stemmed from a probation violation in November of 2017 and made him the newest face of criminal justice reform.

The calls for his freedom rivaled those for Lil’ Boosie and for Gucci Mane in years past. And Meek (Robert Rihmeek Williams) graduated to something of a Philly sports yoda during his time in the belly of the beast. His 2012 “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro)” ignited the Philadelphia Eagles on the way to their first Super Bowl. And the 76ers have long been Meek’s loudest supporters — from Julius “Dr. J” Erving to current players raising awareness to his friendship with Sixers minority owner Michael Rubin.

Kellerman compares Simmons-Embiid to Penny-Shaq

Max Kellerman has not seen a young duo like Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid since Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal.


Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway (the new head coach at the University of Memphis) fail miserably at containing the pride in their voices. Both recognize Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons as the most dynamic young point guard and center combo since the mid-1990s, when they turned Orlando into the cultural capital of the brief post-Jordan basketball world.

Both sets of teammates are first and third overall picks — O’Neal and Simmons being the top picks in 1992 and 2016, respectively; Hardaway and Embiid were No. 3 in 1993 and 2014. Penny was originally drafted by the Golden State Warriors and then immediately traded to Orlando for Chris Webber.

“Joel makes Ben’s game easier and Ben makes Joel’s game easier. Just like Shaq and I. It was poetry in motion.” — Penny Hardaway

“When I demanded they bring in Penny,” says Shaq, “I was thinking we were gonna be the new Magic Johnson and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]. I already knew what I wanted because I had a good point guard [Scott Skiles], but he was older. … We’d have to build defensive schemes around him — like when guards posted him up, we had to double. I just got tired of doing all that. I was like, we need to get somebody who can play everybody straight up.”

“It’s great having a star opposite your position because it makes [the game] easier,” says Hardaway. “Joel makes Ben’s game easier and Ben makes Joel’s game easier. Just like Shaq and I. It was poetry in motion.” Through nostalgia-tinted glasses the working relationship seems much longer, but O’Neal and Penny played together for only three seasons in Orlando.

O’Neal sees parts of himself in Embiid, 24, and confidence is near the top of that list. Stylistically, Embiid has drawn comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon. But it’s the intangibles that place a smile on Shaq’s face when discussing Embiid. “The way he dominates the game, the way he’s very outspoken,” O’Neal says. “He’s very loved in the community [that drafted him] too.”

Hardaway stops short of saying he sees himself in Simmons, but he does, however, impart some advice to the floor general whose athleticism and floor vision get co-signs from some of the game’s legends. “[To Ben, I’d say] don’t get too ahead of yourself. Always keep that chip on your shoulder. Don’t ever think that you’ve arrived.”

Simmons, 21, follows in the line of big, pass-first point guards like Hardaway and the prototype Magic Johnson (LeBron James, too, if you’re considering him a point guard). Simmons, through five games this postseason, has exhibited poise and fearlessness beyond his years, and the fluidity in his game is very reminiscent of Hardaway. The clearest difference between Simmons and his basketball prophyte is Hardaway’s superior shooting — a skill that this year’s presumptive at least co-Rookie of the Year will attack this offseason.

“The [biggest] lesson I learned was don’t celebrate until the job is done.” — Shaq

Much like the Golden State Warriors and the Kevin Durant-, Russell Westbrook- and James Harden-led Oklahoma City Thunder, this current 76er iteration is the 2010s’ newest “young team.” They’re the new cool kids everyone wants to be around. They’re embedded in the cultural discourse, much like Shaq and Penny before them.

Shaq dropped platinum rap albums, kicked it with Biggie Smalls and entered Hollywood while Penny became a marketing deity in part because of his shoes and the immortal “Lil’ Penny” character voiced by Chris Rock. Both Embiid and Simmons have forged a kinship with Meek Mill. Embiid has been knighted basketball’s premier and peerless trash-talker and has the most notable crush on Rihanna since … Drake? And Simmons is dating R&B starlet Tinashe.

With each completed step of the process, Philly’s “Neon Boudeaux” and “Butch McRae” — Shaq and Penny’s characters in 1994’s Blue Chips — continue to add to the cultural kismet Sixer basketball has accumulated since the days of Allen Iverson. O’Neal has been behind that same wheel. In 1995, when they got to the Finals, the Magic were still a very young team, having only been in the league since 1989. Philly, by virtue of several unwatchable, “embarrassing” seasons, played like one. From 2013-16, the Sixers won a total of 47 regular-season games. They won 50 this year alone.

Carrying the weight of an entire organization when you’re technically not old enough to legally rent a car comes with its own war stories. And many are picking Philly to advance to the Eastern Conference finals. TNT analyst and Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said Tuesday night that the Sixers “have everything” needed to beat any team in their path. Many peg them as the first Eastern Conference team in nearly 3,000 days that will defeat LeBron James in the postseason — provided The King and his ragtag collection of merry men advance that far. Some are bold enough to predict a 76ers championship parade this summer. James told Simmons four years ago that he could be better than him — if Simmons “[did] the work.”

“The word potential,” Hardaway says, “can be dangerous because it’s saying you have the ability to be something.” The ability to be something and actually becoming the superhero of your wildest dreams are different realities. Shaq and Penny realized their joint potential, even if they didn’t punctuate it completely with a championship that seemed inevitable at their partnership’s peak. Both carry those battle wounds.

“The [biggest] lesson I learned was don’t celebrate until the job is done,” O’Neal says with a faint sigh. O’Neal, Hardaway and the 1995 Orlando Magic hold the distinction of being the last team to defeat a Michael Jordan-led team in the postseason. “I go back to what happened after we beat Mike and [the Chicago Bulls] … we already thought we had won the championship. But Houston, who had won the year before, knew what it took to win, and we didn’t. … As a young guy, you really don’t know what it takes to win a championship.”

Shaq and Penny were swept by the Houston Rockets in the 1995 Finals. A year later, they were swept by Jordan’s Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals. And later in the summer of 1996, O’Neal migrated west to begin the next chapter of his career with the Los Angeles Lakers and an uber-confident 18-year-old rookie named Kobe Bryant. Just like that, Orlando dreams turned into nightmares.

But Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons can still put a championship crack in the Liberty Bell. It’s all about moments. Embiid starting in his first All-Star Game is one. Simmons potentially winning Rookie of the Year is another. Tuesday night was big too. But if “trusting the process” is to be taken at face value, then it shouldn’t be about late May or potentially early June. It should just be about the next moment — Game 1 against either the Boston Celtics or Milwaukee Bucks. The advice for them from their predecessors is as simple as it is complex.

“The only thing I can say to [Ben and Joel] is don’t take this time for granted, like it’s going to happen next year because you’re a young team,” Hardaway says. “Right now, with the run they’re on, they have to be careful of saying, ‘If we don’t win the next round, we’re gonna have next year.’ You gotta do it now.” Through basketball osmosis, that advice has already permeated into Philly’s locker room. Embiid told reporters prior to Game 5 that he believed Philly’s “time is now.”

Shaq and Penny are more personally invested in Simmons and Embiid’s success — they want Philly’s dynamic duo to surpass them. “Hopefully they can stick together and not have any petty problems,” Shaq says. “You know, not worry about who’s getting paid the most.” He pauses. “I think if they stay together…they’re gonna be very hard to beat.”

Meek Mill sat courtside as guest of honor beside fellow Philly native Kevin Hart. The moment was one of the wildest “fresh outta jail” fables since Tupac was released from prison in October 1995, caught a cross-country flight from New York to Los Angeles and began recording his behemoth album All Eyez On Me the same night. The day began with Meek in a cell and ended with his first live look at the city’s two newest basketball demigods.

Embiid and Simmons combined for 33 points, 22 rebounds, 7 assists, 4 steals and 2 blocks. Both, like Meek, continue to etch their names in the city’s cultural history.

Philly sports teams are having their best year yet; Philly music is not The City of Brotherly Love is the newest title town, but native rapper Meek Mill isn’t having the same luck

If you’re a Philly sports fan, this quote from legendary black philosopher Young Jeezy’s 2005 sermon “Get Ya Mind Right,” Minus the bulls—, life’s great, may be extremely relevant to your life right now.

After years of coming up short and outright irrelevant in some sports, Philadelphia is America’s newest title town. The Eagles are the reigning Super Bowl champs and widely regarded as the most socially conscious team in a league that would rather its players be anything but. They also appear to be getting stronger with a slew of offseason moves. The Sixers are riding a 10-game winning streak, Ben Simmons is dating rhythm and blues starlet Tinashe, and, despite a recent injury, All-Star Joel Embiid should be back in time for the playoffs (though that hasn’t stopped him from tweeting Rihanna once again). The Philadelphia Flyers are still in playoff contention as the NHL season winds down. The Phillies are still in the hunt — with only 159 regular season games remaining. And Monday night the Villanova Wildcats captured their second national championship in the past three seasons with a 79-62 victory over Michigan.

On the flip side, all is not well in Philly’s pop culture world. The cold war between Judge Genece Brinkley and Meek Mill wages on. Brinkley recently denied the request to recuse herself from Mill’s case after repeated attempts by his legal team. She then doubled down by killing the request to reconsider his sentencing, calling Mill’s two- to four-year term “absolutely necessary.” Meek, of course, has become a rallying point for the city’s sports teams — especially the Eagles, who rallied (literally and figuratively) around his “Dreams and Nightmares” intro all the way to the city’s first Super Bowl championship, and the Sixers, with Embiid and Sixers minority owner Michael Rubin visiting the rapper in prison.

Such is just the latest chapter in a saga that has transcended hip-hop, becoming a lightning rod around the ongoing criminal justice debate. Mill’s next post-conviction hearing is set for April 16.